With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, members of the public interested in seeing the legislature in-person during this week’s special session and legislative staff are required to wear masks when they enter lawmakers’ office building in Nashville.
But the mask requirement continues to be flouted by many lawmakers.
When the legislature returned to Nashville on Monday, dozens of House Republicans walked around their Cordell Hull office building and the state Capitol while not wearing a mask.
That’s despite a recent rise of COVID-19 cases throughout Tennessee, including in rural areas, and pleas from Gov. Bill Lee for all Tennesseans to wear a mask.
Similarly, dozens of Republican lawmakers refused to wear masks when the legislature gathered in June. Although some efforts were made to mitigate the spread of the virus, including limiting the public’s access and installing plexiglass around members’ desks, the majority of House Republican lawmakers refused to wear masks.
Masks were more prevalent among members of the state Senate, which has an average age of 61 years old. The chamber also closed its half of the legislative building and the state Capitol to the public.
Since the June session, Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, contracted the virus. Overall, 11 lawmakers or legislative staffers have tested postive for COVID-19 since May, according to Connie Ridley, director of legislative administration. Ridley has not disclosed how many of those were lawmakers versus staff.
On Monday, when the House Republican Caucus gathered ahead of an afternoon floor session, The Tennessean observed at least 33 members who entered the meeting without a mask. Twenty-three Republicans walked into the caucus meeting, which was closed to the press, wearing a mask.
Among the 33-member state Senate, 22 lawmakers were wearing masks during Monday’s floor session, including 17 Republicans. Eight Republican senators had no masks, while three others were absent.
On Tuesday, as House lawmakers walked in a tunnel connecting the Capitol to the Cordell Hull building after a morning floor session, 26 Republicans were maskless while nine had face coverings.
The divide on masks at the legislature is largely along party lines. By and large, Democrats have been wearing masks during the special session.
Noticing the lack of masks, two House lawmakers pleaded with their colleagues during Tuesday’s floor session to change their ways.
“Please, let’s give consideration to our other members,” Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, said. “Just about every medical expert out there is asking that we all wear masks.”
Parkinson said he was not wearing a mask for himself but to protect others.
Rep. Sabi Kumar, R-Springfield, said it was important to put a barrier between people in the form of masks. “The less virus (that) enters our body, the stronger we are and better are our chances of being able to fight it,” he said.
Kumar made a similar call on the House floor during the June session.
Despite the pleas, many House members continue to resist. Speaking to Rep. Bob Freeman, D-Nashville, on Monday, Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, said she refused to wear a mask because “I’m not sick.”
Speaking to reporters minutes later, House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, cited Nashville’s rise in COVID-19 cases and the city’s mask mandate as the reason some members are wearing them.
“That is still up to each member,” he said. “They answer to their constituents.”
Such an option is not afforded to the public, legislative or members of the press, all of whom are required to wear masks while inside the Cordell Hull building.
In total, nearly 124,000 Tennesseans have tested positive for COVID-19. The state has recorded 1,233 deaths, as of Monday.
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Reach Joel Ebert at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.